Penning a nonfiction novel is quite an endeavor for any writer, especially when it comes to true crime because the stakes are so very high, humanly and legally.
Writer Ann Rule has often been credited with having invented the true crime genre and even if it is not the case, she has surely contributed to boosting its popularity and made a fortune doing it.
Ann Rule started writing true crime under the male pseudonym Andy Stack. Her early work appeared in many publications including Master Detective, Inside Detective, Front Page Detective, Office Detective and True Detective. She was a police officer and knew that at the time, people did not put too much stock in what a woman had to say about crime so she wisely used an alias to get her message across.
She has published over 1400 articles and 41 books and most of them made the bestseller’s list. She was part of a task force that created a serial-killer identifying computer system called Vi-CAP and is a certified instructor in many states on serial murder, sadistic psychopaths, women who kill, and high-profile offenders.
In 2012, the Writer’s Digest published boot camp advice from the popular writer.
Ann said that at an early age, she was fascinated by crime—not the how, but the why.
“I think that we come to our genre naturally,” she said.
She was known to take ride along with law enforcement and worked hard to obtain an associate’s degree in criminal science.
Like most writers, she faced many rejections and that’s why she wrote for true detective magazines to be able to earn a living.
“You have to write about what you know about,” she said.
Back then, not even her children slowed her down. “Unless the kids were actually fighting on top of the typewriter, I could keep writing.”
One day, destiny decided to knock at her door in the person of Ted Bundy. She wrote her famous book The Stranger Beside Me after having worked with Ted in a crisis clinic in Seattle. Talk about serendipity.
After the tragic suicide of her brother, Rule had volunteered at a crisis center where she met and worked with Ted, who was a work-study psychology student getting paid $2 per hour.
After Bundy’s horrendous crimes were revealed, Rule attended his trial and as a result, wrote her first bestseller.
Rule is known to be kind to aspiring writers and she encouraged them by saying ‘’You can’t let the naysayers make think you can’t make it, because you can.’’
If you want to be a true crime writer, Rule said the best thing you can be, is immensely curious. And, you should go to trials—something anyone can do. From a life spent in courtrooms, here are Rule’s tips and etiquette for doing just that.
You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
- Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.
- Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
- Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
- If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.”
- Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
- Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.”
- Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
- Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
Some compare the documenting she uses for her stories to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but he went about it in a very unique way. One would have to be quite ingenious to find a parallel between her style and methods and his brilliant creativity.
As a former police officer, Rule might be at a disadvantage, because her law and order background leads her invariably down the most travelled path unless there is a giant road block, and it can only lead to perdition for the main characters of her books. Capote with his masterful genius, did not follow any path and went on his own unabashed way, willing to see a light at the end of any tunnel. The only point they had in common would be the fame and notoriety that afforded them both the possibility of taking liberties.
George Plimpton from the New York Times wrote in 1996, that ‘’In Cold Blood is remarkable for its objectivity – nowhere, despite his involvement, does the author intrude.’’
I would beg to differ because even if it was written in the third person, his own inclinations floated like a gentle breeze, yet ruffled the delicate feathers of some readers or critics not willing to disregard some ethical problems they found in the novel. Capote was not always truthful and he changed some aspects of one of the main characters, Perry Smith, in order make people feel sorry for him; he exaggerated his level of remorse as he awaited execution and no one heard Smith enunciate an apology before his hanging. Most readers went along for the ride because he had been portrayed as a sensitive troubled soul whose bad luck and misfortune led him to the road of perdition. Capote felt strongly about his redemption and it reverberated in the story.
In fact, he said ‘’It is true that an author is more in control of fictional characters because he do anything he wants with them as long as they stay credible. But in the nonfiction novel one can also manipulate.’’
Plimpton did a great interview with Capote and asked him about the new literary art form which he called the nonfiction novel.
He felt that few first-class creative writers ‘’had ever bothered with journalism, except as a sideline, “hackwork,” something to be done when the creative spirit is lacking, or as a means of making money quickly.’’
Such writers say in effect: Why should we trouble with factual writing when we’re able to invent our own stories, contrive our own characters and themes?–journalism is only literary photography, and unbecoming to the serious writer’s artistic dignity.
‘’Another deterrent–and not the smallest–is that the reporter, unlike the fantasist, has to deal with actual people who have real names. If they feel maligned, or just contrary, or greedy, they enrich lawyers (though rarely themselves) by instigating libel actions. This last is certainly a factor to consider, a most oppressive and repressive one. Because it’s indeed difficult to portray, in any meaningful depth, another being, his appearance, speech, mentality, without to some degree, and often for quite trifling cause, offending him. The truth seems to be that no one likes to see himself described as he is, or cares to see exactly set down what he said and did. Well, even I even can understand that–because I don’t like it myself when I am the sitter and not the portraitist; the frailty of egos!–and the more accurate the strokes, the greater the resentment.’’
What Capote was talking about in 1996, has come home to roost with the true crime genre. But it is not solely the subject of the books that are not happy with their portrayal, but also the authors, who at times, have some explaining to do and resent being exposed. What’s good for the incarcerated Goose should be good for the Gander writer as well.
Ann Rule wrote the best-seller Heart Full of Lies in 2003. Liysa Northon was the villainess of the book and in July 2001, had pled guilty to killing her husband in a northeastern Oregon camping ground. She received twelve years and was released in October 2012 after serving her full sentence.
It was not a real high-profile case but when Rule rolled into town, it became obvious that the ghost of infamy would haunt Northon for a long time. She would declare later, that Rule’s ‘true crime’ story had been more damaging to her life than the trial itself.
After learning about the lawsuits filed between Liysa, her fiancé Rick Swart and Ann Rule, I read Heart Full of Lies to judge for myself if the claims from both sides were valid.
I must admit to only reading a few of Ann Rule’s books through the years and Heart Full of Lies was definitely not her best literary achievement. But as usual, the style was inviting and it drew you in with vivid sensory descriptions and the specter of evil within. But it left me with some serious questions and at times, it felt inchoate and pushy. Contrary to Capote, the intrusion from the author in the narrative was not breezy and subtle. The proverbial elephant was in the room awaiting its rescue from the Circus.
In the prologue, Rule talks about the importance of presenting both sides. And at times, she plants among the weeds, some positive remarks about Liysa. She calls her an excellent mother, a great writer and keeps repeating that she has strong supporters. But in my opinion, some of her comments sound quite insidious and have the effect of a stink bomb; sure to infiltrate, permeate and overwhelm the readers with her own impressions.
I continued reading the story and following its logic or lack thereof at times, till the end. Then, I read the rebuttal of facts on Liysa Northon’s website as well as her husband’s article.
I had no interest vested in the outcome of that trial, so it was not difficult to remain objective but I must admit that I found the whole saga quite captivating:
Rick Swart was the editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain newspaper when Liysa Northon shot her husband, Chris Northon in July 2001. He never was directly involved in the case but his paper covered it and he edited stories about the killing. The case was in the local media but did not make much headway in the national press. The case came and went and three or four years later, as Rick was flying to Hawaii for a well needed vacation, he picked up Rule’s book Heart Full of Lies.
He was in for the shock of his life when he finally saw pictures of Liysa Northon who, in fact, was Liysa DeWitt, the girl he had met as a young man and who had been part of his social circle. The 5’4’’ slim and lovely girl he wanted to date and who even broke his heart when she did not show up for their ‘first’ date, was the ‘sociopath’ Rule had described in her book.
He decided to write Liysa at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility where she was now known as ‘Surfer’ and well-liked by staff and other inmates. His newspaper’s reporting of the case had been pretty hard on her so at first, she was standoffish with Rick and expressed her discontent in no uncertain terms.
In time, they became true friends and eventually fell in love. Some would say that Rick could not be objective because he developed feelings for Liysa, but his initial intention was and remained to check her whole story piece by piece and he was by all accounts, really rigorous about it. He wanted documented facts or witness confirmations. He could not afford to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Liysa Northon claimed that Rule’s book had 287 errors and falsehoods, including a description of her as an untidy housekeeper. So Rick recreated every one of them and did research until he could prove or disprove them.
Once he had compiled everything, he tried to get newspapers interested in publishing his findings. But with a case that had now become high-profile, and with Ann Rule at the helm, people were too intimidated and declined.
Finally, as a freelance journalist, Rick decided to submit the story himself to the Seattle Weekly. The editor was quite interested and published ‘’How Seattle’s Queen of True Crime Turned a Battered Wife into a killer Sociopath.’’ The problem is that he neglected to tell them that Liysa was his new romantic interest. To say that they were not pleased is an understatement, but they still confirmed that Rule’s story was one sided, after reading all the official documents provided by Swart.
Swart does not regret the omission as it was his only way to get the story out.
“My personal life is my own business,” Swart said. As for his article, “I’m selling a product.”
In a telephone interview from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility near Wilsonville, Northon said Swart knew what he was doing. “Nobody would have run the story when he told them he’d fallen in love with me,” she said, “and the utter injustice that was done to me needed to be printed.”
Ann Rule stood by her characterization of Northon as a methodical killer and as a woman who “can make any man do what she wants, for a while.”
“I certainly didn’t make up anything,” Rule said. “It was all in the files and the transcripts. I couldn’t find any real indication that Liysa had been battered, not by Chris.“
In Liysa’s eyes, she was a battered woman who killed to save her children. In Rule’s eyes, she was a killer who wanted to inherit money and get rid of her husband.
I wondered how Rule could have come up with some of her conclusions if she read transcripts but did not interview Liysa, her family, friends or supporters. She had talked to the victim’s family but had ignored the other side. I figured that she probably stuck to proven facts and concluded that it was sufficient. But I was wrong because I realized that at times, she strayed even from official and verified information.
It must have been upsetting for Ann Rule to see a front page caricature of herself on the Seattle Weekly and to read derogatory comments about her book. She is used to coasting on her reputation and does not usually worry about her readers checking the validity of her stories because they despise the subject already, and they are a very compliant audience. After all, most people do not care about the rights of inmates.
She filed a lawsuit against the Seattle Weekly owned by Village Voice Media at the time, Swart and its editor Caleb Hannan contending that he failed to do basic research into the reporting of Rick Swart titled ‘’Ann Rule’s Sloppy Storytelling.’’
”The article contained innumerable inaccuracies and untruths concerning the testimony and evidence in the trial of Liysa Northon and also included various unfounded personal attacks on Rule,” attorney Anne Bremner said in the lawsuit.
“Because of the article’s publication and defamatory content, Rule has been significantly damaged personally and professionally,” Bremner continued.
Hannan went on to pledge to fact check the story and publish the results; Seattle Weekly subsequently corrected several minor errors to the story, which remains on the website. But the bulk of it turned out to be correct.
Judge Laura Inveen dismissed the claims made by Ann Rule’s in her defamation suit against Seattle Weekly stating that the article was free speech and protected by the First Amendment.
The Judge also found that Rule had not proved that Swart’s allegations in his article were false or defamatory. She had to pay Swart, the newspaper, and two other defendants each $10,000, as well as attorney legal fees.
Rule subsequently filed 13 declarations in support of a Motion for Reconsideration of Orders of Dismissal. It was basically a motion to attempt to go through the back door to litigate the matter again. Judge Inveen denied the motion.
In the order, Inveen criticized Rule’s “attempt to interject new facts into the matter, much of which are irrelevant and appear to be designed to appeal to the passion, prejudice and sympathy of the reader, whether it be the judge, or anticipated wider audience.”
Swart submitted a claim for approximately $65,000 in fees and costs, while Seattle Weekly submitted a claim of approximately $120,000, and the judge will rule on those claims.
In 2004, Liysa Northon had filed a complaint against Rule and her publishers in Multnomah County Circuit Court because the book Heart Full of Lies had damaged her reputation. The suit also named prosecutor Daniel Ousley who according to Northon, told Rule there was no evidence Chris Northon used drugs or was abusive to his wife. It was dismissed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and Liysa had to pay $60,000 in attorney’s fees.
In her 2006 Anti-Slapp motion filed in the libel suit against her, Ann Rule said ‘’I can say whatever I want about Liysa, true or not. Inmates are libel-proof. Due to the fact that they are incarcerated they cannot be further defamed.’’
Liysa Northon’s father had tried several times to show Ann Rule some documents that flew in the face of her findings. She never contacted him.
Some facts presented in Ann Rule’s book
Liysa Northon was never a battered woman: Liysa Northon had been determined by the court and by professionals to have been a victim of domestic violence. Documents, photos and witnesses support this.
Liysa is histrionic, a sociopath, perhaps bipolar and suffers from incurable personality disorders: She was diagnosed by six different mental health professionals, including the state’s own expert as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, as a direct result of the trauma of the abuse she endured.
Wayland Dewitt (Liysa’s father) fancied himself qualified to make a diagnosis of Chris’ mental state. He was a religious lay counselor in the prison: Dr. Wayland DeWitt received a doctorate in psychology. He practiced both with private patients and he worked in a mental institution.
Her husband Chris was a mellow guy who would never hurt anyone: There is a police report about domestic violence and a therapist letter.
Liysa never finished College and only took elective courses: Diploma proves she graduated.
Liysa’s son loved Chris: INVESTIGATIVE INTERVIEW 10-13-2000—Justice Department. According to the child’s father, the child was very afraid of Chris, and the child had told him this on several occasions.
Liysa said her mother beat her and broke 26 bones: Her former husband and friends stated that Liysa said she had a ‘tough childhood’ but her mother consulted and they worked through it. The only person who mentioned the broken bones is the victim’s mother.
Liysa pled guilty to Felony Murder: The plea bargain was for Manslaughter with Extreme Emotional disturbance.
Liysa lied repeatedly to her attorney about not having any insurance: she provided all relevant documentation about the modest life insurance policy, she provided the policy numbers, the name and phone number of her insurance agent to the legal team on a number of occasions.
Rule denied that Chris held a knife to his son’s throat: SP00-437609 POLICE INVESTIGATION INTERVIEW OFFICER JIM VAN ATTA LIYSA NORTHON’S OLDEST SON (10-10-2000, 11:05 am) “My little brother told me Chris was chasing him around with a knife.”
It is only a sample of all the facts contested. You can read and judge for yourself on http://www.liysanorthon.com/factorfiction.html
Whatever one’s opinion is about the case of Liysa Northon Swart, a true crime writer should not publish a book without checking all facts in order to make a defendant look guilty as sin. With great power comes great responsibility. Because she is an icon, Rule’s books are usually sure to propel the main character into infamy and it should not be taken lightly. With the fortune she has amassed so far by marketing villains, it might be tempting to reproduce this winning formula by glossing over many shades of grey or by accepting blindly the victim’s family version of events.
Rule was once fooled by sociopath Ted Bundy and she might be afraid to let it happen again, but to come up with a one-sided story is symptomatic of a chronic case of ‘I can say whatever I want because inmates have no rights.’’ She keeps repeating in the book that Liysa is a great mother but doesn’t it contradict the fact that she labels her as a sociopath with personality disorders?
Liysa Swart has paid her legal debt to society, she is now remarried, has started a new life and reconnected with her two sons.
I hope that the author of Heart Full of Lies will review her book or simply take it off the market. Maybe she could declare it a work of fiction and change the protagonists’ names. Or she could face her detractors and study the evidence they are providing. After all, she is the one who said about Liysa ”She spent her entire life weaving an intricate web of lies” and was purportedly trying to untangle them in her book. If Rule cares about her reputation and the truth, it would be a great step towards the rehabilitation of nonfiction writing.
I got this idea of doing a really serious big work – it would be precisely like a novel, with a single difference: Every word would be true from beginning to end.
Update: Ann Rule died on July 26, 2015. In recent years, her failing health kept her home-bound and two of her sons were accused of defrauding and bullying her. Her daughter announced that she died peacefully and got to see all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.